Ember
. a RyoSaku story .
by: OrangeAce

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"Love blooms like an enflamed ember. But sometimes just like ember, love gives birth to fear in which we drift away from the light and choose to succumb in darkness instead."

Summary: Ryuuzaki Sakuno was a mere baker, happy and full of passion for life. Echizen Ryoma was an all-powerful multimillionaire business tycoon, yet was sullen and had developed an unpleasant disposition because of his past. What happens when two different souls collide in the most unlikely of places? Will the shrouded in darkness Ryoma allow himself to be rekindled by the flaming passions of Sakuno? Or will he choose to drift away for fear of losing everything he wanted?

Author's Notes: This is an AU. Ember is the fruit of my overactive-imagination and the painstaking days of molding a plot in my mind to be aligned with my prompt! By the way, characters are in their early twenties. And please disregard the original characters' religion for this story. Thanks! Happy reading!

Dedicated to: Hazelnut and to the Lord Almighty. :)

Disclaimer: Prince of Tennis is owned by Takeshi Konomi… and how I wish I was him. The plot is mine though. :)

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I pray that Christ Jesus and the church will forever bring praise to God.

His power at work in us can do far more than we dare ask or imagine.

- Ephesians 3.20-21 CEV

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|I: Miss Match|

Entering the back door of the shop, Ryuuzaki Sakuno was immediately greeted by the smell of freshly baked bread wafting the entire kitchen. She was surprised to hear the clanks at the early hour, sure that she was always the first to start the day's work. Closing the door with a soft thud, she took in the sight of her everyday sanctuary. Translucent curtains with flower embroideries were neatly tied, letting in a burst of sunshine light the supposedly dim room. Kitchen tools and ingredients were already brought out from their cupboards and now scattered all over the counters. She also noticed dozens of dough rolls neatly placed on several trays, ready to be put in the oven.

Her delight reflected in the upward curving of her lips.

How she loved the sight of her workplace every morning.

"You're early today, Tomo-chan," Sakuno said as she grabbed her cotton apron from a nearby rack and tied the strings into a ribbon behind her back.

Her best friend looked up from her cutting board, "The earlier we're done here, the sooner we can go to An-chan's social gathering," she grinned contentedly, her focus on the cookie dough she was working on.

"Aa, I think it's more appropriate if we call it worship service." Sakuno could not help but give Tomoka a reproachful glare - well, attempt anyway - as she began to prepare the batter for her cakes.

Tomoka's eyes shot upward, but she chuckled at her friend's attempt to reprimand her nonetheless. "Yeah, whatever. But An-chan says there are a lot of cute guys there," she squealed while placing the tray she just finished working on inside the oven. "That's great, isn't it?"

Sakuno shook her head amusedly, already used to her friend's antics, and continued mixing the batter. "All Tomo-chan thinks about is boys," the person concerned merely stuck her tongue out childishly, "…but we'll get something bigger out of this, I'm sure."

Tomoka shrugged, "Well, An-chan became really happy after going to that place instead of hanging out with us on Saturday afternoons. Remember how we always argue with her for ditching us for that place? It's pretty funny, don't you think? And now we're actually going to follow her there, huh."

Sakuno smiled softly, pouring the contents of the bowl to a metal pan and placing it inside an available oven right after. "Well, there's more to life than silly boyfriends," she smiled encouragingly at her suddenly abashed-looking best friend.

"I don't really know," Tomoka paused, looking at her friend."…but I guess, it's nice to have a break once in a while."

Not so long ago, Tomoka had had an affair with a guy who was seemingly charming at first but turned out to be the man with the worst mood swings ever. Tomoka was smitten with the undeniably handsome guy with the killer smile, but Sakuno began to doubt their relationship when the man had made it his habit to spout never-ending string of curses, insults, and accusations on the most unreasonable things, like Tomoka spending too much time in the bakeshop when it was her job or her rack being too small as if the poor girl could do anything to inflate it with a snap of a finger.

Fortunately, Sakuno didn't have to go to the extremes to make her best friend see the light, for Tomoka had broken up with the guy during their anniversary last month. Robert (that was the jerk's name) had been thoughtful enough to buy Tomoka a bouquet of red roses and bring her to dine in one of the decent restaurants in town. The twenty-four year old had to admit, it was a good start. However, things had gone downhill the moment he opened his mouth and mentioned how Tomoka looked like a wilted asparagus in her dress and asked if something was wrong with her nose because it looked so flat that evening. Tomoka had gone red from both anger and embarrassment and had no second thoughts of dumping him right there and then. Pouring the glass of wine on his head was the cherry on top. Sakuno had never been more proud of her friend.

Sakuno had spent most of her time with Tomoka to be aware of the imperative occurrences in her life. They have first stuck together in middle school and were inseparable ever since, even until they've graduated in college where they both earned the same degree in culinary arts. As their first job experience, they both entered a well-renowned bakeshop in the district, and everything had fared well so far. The pay was good, the place not too far away from home, and the atmosphere was nothing but pleasant. Sakuno was more than content with her current lifestyle, even if she hasn't found Mr. Right yet, which Tomoka had often pressed was top priority in a young woman's life.

Sakuno leaned over the counter, holding Tomoka's gaze intently, "Don't worry. There are a million guys out there. You just have to be patient in waiting for the right one," she offered a warm smile.

"Aww… You're a real up lifter, Sakuno-chan!" Tomoka crossed the other side of the room to squeeze the living daylights out of her friend. "I'm sure you'll find your perfect guy, too! Someone as kind, pure, angelic, light-hearted, understanding, and sweet as you! Someone… someone like…"

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"Echizen Ryoma!"

Ryoma slammed the folders on his office desk. After counting to ten, he swiveled his chair towards the unwanted visitor who had flung his office doors open and almost removed it from its hinges. He glared at the newcomer for several moments before pressing a button on a machine on his table and muttered, "Didn't I tell you not to let anyone in here?"

"My apologies, Mr. Echizen! But he was really persistent…"

He sighed and began massaging his temples. It had been such a stressful day in his office: unwanted visitors, stocks, meetings, paper work, annoying secretaries, more unwanted visitors and so on and so forth. Not to mention his super congested schedule, his grumbling stomach, and his starting-to-throb head thanks to the aforementioned.

Ryoma had another go in glaring at the newcomer standing by his door. "What is it, Horio?"

"Did you forget!" the uni-browed man snorted, unceremoniously plopping down on the leather couch.

"Do you actually expect me to remember something insignificant?" He scowled when Horio rolled his eyes. "Stop wasting my time."

"Geez! Someone woke up on the wrong side of the bed this morning!" Ryoma's eyes narrowed even more, which caused Horio to stiffen and get down to business. "Okay, okay! I'm here to remind you about the gig I've bugged the hell out of you for!"

It took several moments for Ryoma to process what Horio said. "Hn."

Horio took that as an acknowledgement and looked smug. "Well then, Mr. Vice President. I expect to see you in the main lobby at around four-thirty pm later!"

Ryoma swiveled his chair back towards his computer and began typing. "Whatever."

Pleased, Horio left with a self-satisfied smirk and then closed the office door. As soon as he heard the soft click of the door lock, Ryoma immediately exited Microsoft Word in his computer and clicked on a button on the menu bar. Another window opened, and a picture of someone in a dark blue shirt, white shorts, and a ponytail while holding a wooden tennis racket popped up on his screen.

Echizen Nanjiroh. He read the caption.

Then he clicked another button and a new picture of someone who looked frighteningly like him popped up.

Echizen Ryoga.

Just before he could read any further, the tiny machine beside him buzzed with life again. Grunting at the interruption, he immediately closed the windows and diverted his attention away from his computer screen. He wouldn't risk anyone entering his office know about his interest in tennis or the fact that he had shown the slightest bit of interest with Echizen Ryoga.

"Sir, Ore-Sama Advertising Co. has just contacted me and insists on having a meeting with you—"

"I don't want to," was his immediate answer.

"Reject it, sir? But they say that it's urgent—"

"Do I have to repeat myself?"

A sigh. "Understood."

Ryoma returned to his computer, this time going back to Word and resuming his work regarding a report he needed to submit to the President. As soon as he started typing away, the tiny machine on his desk sounded for the hundredth time that day – thus, interrupting the twenty-four year old yet again. He frowned, aggravated.

"Mr. Echizen, I forgot to remind you of the preparations Mr. Prince would be asking from you about the big event next week. He needs them by the end of the day."

Ryoma resisted the urge to throw the machine out the window, his eyes now incredibly narrowed from pure vexation. "Do it."

"Excuse me, sir?"

"Do it," Ryoma drawled. "This is bothersome. You should have told me earlier. My schedule's packed, and I have no time for this," The sharp edge in his tone would undoubtedly send his secretary cowering right now.

And he wasn't disappointed. "Y-Yes, sir!"

He sighed and leaned back on his chair.

Echizen Ryoma's life was truly miserable.

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"We owe you for the brunch, Nanako-chan!"

The long, blue-haired manager of the shop beamed at her prized employees. "That was nothing, Tomoka, Sakuno."

It was around mid-day when the two opened the shop. With the upturned chairs properly placed, the cakes and other pastries presentable inside the glass counters, the bakeshop was ready for customers. Right after opening, Tomoka had entered the kitchen for wrapping up as Sakuno took her place by the counter and properly sorted out the items for sale. Half an hour passed before the shop bells sounded, and Sakuno found herself looking at the pretty owner of the bakeshop, Meino Nanako. It was quite a thrill for both women to see their manager's face light up the moment she stepped foot inside the shop.

"By the way, there's a huge party we're going to cater next week."

Sakuno and Tomoka looked up from the cakes they were slicing.

"A huge party?" Tomoka exclaimed, failing to hide the Cheshire grin that appeared on her face. "Could this be my chance?"

Nanako and Sakuno shook their heads in disbelief but smiled nevertheless.

"Don't forget that we'll be working, Tomoka. Not boy-watching," Nanako reminded as Tomoka's face fell at the reminder. "Besides, it will be a boring party with old, boring people talking about boring business stuff," she said to cheer up her co-worker.

"And didn't you say that we'll have later to find you someone, Tomo-chan?" Sakuno told her friend with a soft laugh.

Tomoka mirrored the gesture, "Now, now… Don't reveal my plans!"

"What 'later'?

The best friends halted their laughter at Nanako's confused voice.

"Uhm… Did we forget to mention leaving early today, Nanako-chan?" Sakuno asked nervously, which Nanako quirked an eyebrow at.

"You see… An-chan invited us to this social gathering—"

"Worship service, Tomo-chan."

Tomoka rolled her eyes. "Worship service which she says is a real bomb where people rock out and sing and meet lots of other people while learn something really important in the process…" she paused. "Well, I'm not really sure what it's about, but she said we won't regret it, so Sakuno-chan and I decided to give it a shot."

"Well, that is, if you will allow us…" Sakuno smiled shyly, expectantly looking at Nanako.

The young manager thought for a moment. "You guys have worked extra hard today, considering your early arrivals and the batches you made," Sakuno and Tomoka held their breath. "… I don't see why not?" The two exhaled in relief. "Wherever you're going seems to be pretty refreshing after a hard day's work!"

Both girls grinned and hugged their friend excitedly. "Thank you!"

"But first, you have to finish your tasks… there are still plenty of customers to serve." Nanako winked and then left the two in the kitchen.

It was around noon when Sakuno and Tomoka had their shift for counter tasks that day. As Sakuno took the spot behind the counter and Tomoka replaced one of the waitresses, the two were out of the kitchen for different duties that time. There were a fair number of customers in the shop that it proved to be a not so arduous task for the two. Tomoka even had the spare time to stop by the counter and chat with her friend.

"What do you say about that guy over there, Sakuno-chan?" Tomoka said while pointing at a tall young man with ivory hair and pale skin seated on the table by the window.

Sakuno blushed, lowering her friend's finger. "Tomo-chan, it's bad to point… And it's not the time to play matchmaker right now," she reprimanded gently.

"Aw, come on! That guy is really cute!" Tomoka exclaimed causing Sakuno to clamp her hand over her friend's mouth. When the loud-mouthed girl broke free from Sakuno's hold, "I have this really strong feeling that you'll meet your special someone today… My instinct is never wrong!"

"Except when you met Robert," Sakuno had the gall to say, just to let Tomoka drop the subject.

"Now that was below the belt!" Tomoka whined, playfully hitting her friend on the head. "But I won't be discouraged!"

Sakuno shook her head disbelievingly. "I'll know the guy's for me when my heart starts beating uncontrollably," she explained.

Tomoka rolled her eyes at the cheese. "You're such a hopeless romantic, Sakuno-chan! You can't be sure that just by the beating of your heart, that's the guy for you."

Sakuno giggled. "Well, if that's the case, then I guess there really would be no one out there for me, eh?"

"Sakuno-chan!"

Suddenly interrupting the two from their chat, a haggard-looking middle-aged man staggered towards the counter. Sakuno glanced at Tomoka and silently asked her if she had done anything with her serving to upset the man. Tomoka shook her head and said that she had no idea who the man was and was probably someone who just entered the shop. Sakuno straightened herself up and put on her best smile when the man reached the counter.

"What would you have, sir?"

"Regular of Black Forest," he muttered sourly.

Tomoka immediately went to fetch the cake as Sakuno noted down the man's order on a notebook. It took her a moment to return to the man, only to see him already on the brink of exploding in impatience. The girl's eyebrows shot up in surprise. It was only a minute ago when Tomoka entered the kitchen to get the cake.

"Is there a special occasion today, sir?" Sakuno asked amiably in an attempt to lighten up the mood.

The guy responded with a glare which immediately shut Sakuno up. "None of your business!"

What a hot-tempered man. Sakuno thought as she tried brushing off the man's bad mood. She wasn't someone whose day could easily be ruined after all. She shrugged, putting her smile back on as she sorted out several receipts on top of the counter.

As minutes ticked by, the man's occasional grunts became louder. Sakuno glanced at him from the corner of her eye and thought that he was either in a hurry to get the cake because he was late, or he was plainly having a bad day and everything was just off for him. When the kitchen door flung open, Sakuno could not help but feel relieved.

"Here you go, sir! One regular Black Forest ready to go!" Tomoka exclaimed pleasantly, the box of cake in the palm of her hand.

"Why is it in a box!"

Tomoka gaped. "Excuse me?"

"A-Ah, sir, we really put it in a box when it's a take-out…" Sakuno explained while trying to remove the 'matter-of-fact' tone in her voice. With a smile, she tried calming the man currently glaring daggers at an equally bothered Tomoka, but it wasn't work. "Erm… or would you rather bring it home unboxed?" Sakuno asked unsurely.

The man's head snapped towards Sakuno. "Are you saying I'm stupid!"

Sakuno and Tomoka panicked.

"O-Of course not, sir!" Sakuno squeaked. She noticed that they were starting to make a scene as several heads had already turned towards their direction. The gears in her mind continued to be on the roll as to why he was making such a big fuss about the cake being boxed. "Uhm… Were you actually planning to eat it here, sir?"

Tomoka regarded Sakuno. "That's a stupid thing to ask—"

"Yeah, you imbeciles!" the man hiccupped.

Everything in Tomoka just snapped. "IMBECILES! Well, you just paraded in here without saying anything! How do you expect us to know! We're not mind readers you big, fat, old man—"

Sakuno clamped her hand over Tomoka's mouth. "We would gladly take out the cake again if you'd like to eat it here, sir," she said calmly, seemingly not at all fazed with all that was happening. The man nodded, to Sakuno's relief, and the girl released her hold on the slightly pacified Tomoka. "Would you like several plates with you on the table?"

"No… I'll need only a spoon," The man hiccupped again and then went off to head to a vacant table.

All eyes followed the uncouth, hysterical man who was the root of such a racket. Sakuno gestured Tomoka to bring the cake to assist the man now settled in a far-end table. Tomoka groaned, but followed with a glass of water nevertheless. Sakuno busied herself with removing the cake from the box, placing it in a huge platter, and inserting a fork on the side. Taking a deep breath, Sakuno carefully lifted the platter and approached the man with cake in hand. As soon as both Tomoka and Sakuno returned to their stations, they heaved a sigh of relief.

"He's drunk," Tomoka snorted disgustedly.

"…and depressed," Sakuno added as he watched the man dig up his cake.

"Well, life can't always offer you the best," Tomoka reasoned out as she leaned back on the counter. "It's not as if he's the only one burdened with problems. Bitching at us like that, tsk. What a wimp. Can't he take whatever happened to him with a bit of resolve? Look at him dig that cake! It makes me want to thank the gods that we're lucky fate isn't so harsh with us."

Sakuno smiled thoughtfully, observing the customer with a look of understanding, "Surely everyone will have moments like those." Her expression was far-off, and she could feel Tomoka's knowing gaze on her, "I think it's your reaction to the problem that proves whether you are weak or strong."

There was a contemplative silence before Tomoka grinned and started poking her friend playfully. "Yeah, yeah… prioress…" she joked.

Sakuno laughed lightly, a faint blush on her face, "Sooner or later, we'll encounter more people like him. I guess we'll just have to offer them our smiles to lighten up their day a bit."

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"Mr. Echizen. You're friend insists on entering your office again— Wait, Mr. Horio—"

His office doors flung open. "Oi, Echizen!"

Ryoma resisted the urge to grab the puncher lying a few inches from his hand and knock his loud-mouthed friend with it for wracking the entire building. He narrowed his eyes at Horio's rude entrance. Again.

"What?"

"It's ten minutes past five!"

Ryoma blinked. "So?"

Horio flared. "What 'so'? Did you forget? Geez, you seriously need to have your head checked—" Horio was shut up for several moments when a random paper ball made its way inside his mouth. He removed the blockage not long after. "What was that about!"

Ryoma swiveled his chair towards the computer. "Don't make me throw the puncher."

Horio sighed frustrated, stomping off to stand directly in front of his friend's desk. "Didn't we already agree that you'll be coming with me this afternoon? What happened to the deal of keeping your fan girls away for this?"

Ryoma made no moves to regard the furious man a foot away from him. "A last-minute meeting came up," he mumbled. "I couldn't refuse since the person who proposed a meeting is going to invest a surprisingly huge amount of money…"

Horio fell back on the leather couch exasperatedly, knowing well enough that he could not get in the way of business. "Just remember we need to be there by six."

"Does it matter if I go with you?"

"Didn't we just agree to this?" Horio bit out, trying to keep his temper from rocketing again, "You know what? Sometimes, it makes me wonder how I became friends with someone like you…"

"I saved your sorry butt from bullies six years ago."

Horio had the decency to look embarrassed, "Ah. My friend. The question was rhetorical."

Interrupting the two from their conversation, the office doors flung open for the second time that afternoon. Both turning to the doorway, Ryoma's eyes widened at the sight of the person standing in his very office; the man whom he had dreaded to see the most until the day of his death.

"Ryoga." He gritted his teeth, clenching his fists.

The older Echizen grinned cockily and made his way across the room. "Yo, chibisuke!"

Ryoma glared at his brother who returned the greeting in a calm but smug demeanor. The tension was thick between the siblings, the temperature considerably dropping to almost zero degrees. Seeing that he was totally out of place, Horio saw the need for an exit.

"Erm… I guess I'll be leaving then?"

Standing up from the couch, Horio was quick on his feet to head towards the open doors when Ryoma spoke up.

"Wait."

Ryoma grabbed his coat while making his way towards the door, completely ignoring the person standing still in the middle of the room.

"You can't run away from me forever, Ryoma," Ryoga whispered when Ryoma walked past him.

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Ryoma felt his insides burning uncontrollably, his feeling unfathomably heavy as if it was being pushed right into the earth's core. He walked towards the front desk of his floor with long, silent strides as Horio tailed behind him quite worriedly. The uni-browed man didn't utter any word though, realizing that it would be best to keep his mouth shut for once.

"Don't let the man in my room enter this building again, do I make myself clear?"

The secretary by the desk nodded her head vigorously, clearly afraid of her boss's cool anger. Ryoma may not be shouting, but the intensity of his gaze could send anyone staggering on their knees. After which, Ryoma and Horio entered the elevator where the brunet pressed the 'basement' button and the two rode it in silence.

"So… what was that about?"

"I don't want to talk about it."

And with that, Horio shut up.

The two reached the basement parking lot not long after.

"Let's use my car," Ryoma commanded before Horio could even grab his keys.

"If you say so…"

As the two sped past the avenues filled with towering buildings and city lights in Ryoma's black sports car, the capped young adult couldn't help but clutch the stirring wheel as he was reminded of the little encounter with Ryoga. Why had he come back so suddenly? His brother had done enough that he couldn't afford to have him create more damage in his already messed-up life…

"Hey! Watch your speed!"

Ryoma was snapped from his trance and realized that he was driving over a 100 km/hr. He sighed and slowed down when he realized something. "Where are we going?"

Horio couldn't help himself from bursting in laughter. "You insisted on using your car, yet you don't know where we're going? You're seriously cracked!" Ryoma narrowed his eyes and this instantly shut him up. "Sheesh, can't you take a joke?"

"Do I look like one who takes jokes?" Ryoma glared.

"Point taken."

Horio guided Ryoma towards their destination that night, telling him to turn right, left, and then right again. The city lights lit the highways of the business district, making it quite easy for Ryoma to go through even the most secluded of shortcuts.

"We're here!"

The sports car stopped in front of a dainty building adorned with flower-shaped bulbs, simple glass windows and a huge oak rimmed door. Ryoma's head immediately snapped towards the grinning Horio.

"What are we doing in a bakeshop?"

"What else? To buy cake of course!"

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"We're running late!"

Sakuno watched her best friend frantically pass several tables while carrying a tray of empty plates. The braided auburn-head was never a candidate for serving, with both her friends fully aware of her inborn clumsiness. She happily accepted the task by the counter, being the one in-charge of ordering clients instead. She glanced at the shop's wall clock. It was 30 minutes before six.

The shop bell suddenly sounded.

"Oreo Cheesecake."

Sakuno snapped from her trance, only realizing that there was someone in front of her, looking at her queerly. She must have spaced-out for quite some time. She blushed instantly.

"Good evening, sir. What will you have?"

"Didn't I just tell you my order?"

Sakuno's blush intensified as she properly fixed her gaze on the man in front of her. She couldn't help but stare for several moments. The stranger had dark green hair under his white cap that seemed to contrast his business suit. The hair had a nice tousled but really shiny effect that made him look really good. He also had an amazing pair of golden eyes that caused her heart to flutter for reasons she didn't know. It was as if she could actually get lost in the swirls of wonders found in his gaze. She found it rather addicting looking at him. In short, the young man was drop-dead gorgeous. But that huge frown on his face and the cocky air he carried with him ruined the picture.

"Hey, do you want to lose a customer?"

"S-Sorry…" she stuttered after pulling herself together. She quickly entered the kitchen for the order.

After acquiring the cake, she carefully opened the door of the kitchen with order in hand. Managing to push the doors wide enough for her to pass, it was left to sway back and forth until it touched her bottom with enough force to make her lose her balance. The sight was rather hilarious as Sakuno dived on the floor, with the cake squished underneath her.

"Tsk."

Sakuno couldn't muster enough courage to respond to that. Feeling very embarrassed, she wordlessly lifted her face from the cake and wiped the mess with the sleeves of her blouse. She could feel the gaze of the customer boring a hole on her head, taking her for a complete idiot. It took her several more moments to calm the raging embarrassment inside her.

"Can you make it faster? I have a deadline here."

Sakuno's breath hitched.

How dare he? Can't he see that she was in a state of self-composing after such humiliation? Such a self-conceited and arrogant guy. Sakuno steadily rose herself up from the floor after wiping the icing on her face. She tried her best to smile despite what happened. Fussing over the simple mess-up was unnecessary. And she learned that customer service is highly important after all.

"Sorry, sir. But that was the last Oreo Cheesecake. What's your other preference?"

"…Chocolate Mousse," he muttered after a moment of thinking.

Sakuno brightened at the reply. She nodded her head and entered the kitchen once more. After getting a hold of a Chocolate Mousse, this time, she very carefully opened the kitchen door and made sure that it would close gently. Upon reaching the counter, she got one of the boxes from under and placed the cake in it. She felt the gaze of the boy on her again, but she blatantly pretended not to know and continued with wrapping the box with a ribbon.

"Here you go, sir…" Sakuno smiled as she pushed the box towards the waiting customer. "That would be 10.75 dollars," she said while typing on the cash register.

Just when Sakuno finally turned away from the register, she found the man already making his way towards the exit. That's when she noticed a twenty dollar bill and a plain white handkerchief on top of the counter.

"Sir! Your forgot your change and hanky—"

But the boy had already exited the shop.

"Sakuno-chan!"

Sakuno turned her gaze away from the door and found Tomoka approaching her with an excited grin on her face.

"I asked permission from Nanako-chan and we can go— What happened to you?"

Sakuno's eyebrows shot up.

"You have icing all over your face."

Tomoka handed Sakuno the hanky on the counter.

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"What took you so long! We're almost late!"

Ryoma just glared at Horio in response as he sat inside the car and shoved the cake to his friend. After settling, he stepped on the gas pedal and the black sports car made its way around the city once again. With Horio's direction, the two reached a brightly lit building in the heart of the district, where several other cars were parked in front of it. Ryoma chose the vacant space between a shiny silver Sedan and a powder blue Porsche.

Horio gave a low whistle. "It seems like the birthday celebrant is here."

The sounds of loud laughter and merriment greeted the two upon entering the building. It had Ryoma quite taken aback seeing a birthday party without loud music, girls in lingerie, alcohol and other upbeat party vibes. What greeted them instead were a dozen of people seated comfortably on plastic chairs while having their silent conversations. There was a long table covered with different kinds of homemade dishes. The music played were songs that repeated lyrics several times. In all honesty, the weird atmosphere in the building crept the hell out of him. It was filled with some sanctuary-like ambiance he couldn't explain.

The people in the room noticed their presence not long after where they immediately grinned at him and ushered him to take a seat… even if they still had no idea who the heck he was.

"We're happy to have you here, Echizen-san," A guy with two lone bangs on his forehead told him with a big smile after a short introduction. "Welcome to our church."

Ryoma's eyes widened. He immediately snapped his head towards Horio who was 'busy' checking his nails and began whistling all of a sudden.

"We have our bible studies and worship service here weekly, nya!" A hyperactive red-head replied with a huge grin on his face.

Before Ryoma could reply, the door of the room flung open, letting in two wet familiar figures. With the door open, the sounds of the rain echoed throughout the place.

"Sorry we're late, guys!" someone exclaimed from the door.

"The service won't start until seven actually… Oh, and don't be afraid to come in!" The only girl in the circle suddenly spoke up.

"My friend had a change of clothes after a tiny accident in the shop!"

"Don't tell me her clumsiness attacked again?"

"You know I can hear you, An-chan," A soft gentle voice sounded from the area near the front door.

Stepping into the lit area, an auburn-head immediately greeted everyone in the room. "Hey! I'm Osakada Tomoka, a friend of An's."

"It seems like you're not the only one new here, eh?" A boy with light brown hair and closed eyes chuckled lightly and gestured towards the silent Ryoma.

Following the brunet's eyes, Tomoka couldn't help but stare at Ryoma for a few moments. Her reaction was pretty similar with Sakuno's first encounter with him, except that hers was not as discrete. It took several more moments of staring before An cleared her throat.

"Oh, hey! Fellow newbie!" Tomoka extended her arm towards Ryoma's direction. But the boy clearly ignored her gesture. "Okaaay…" She dropped her hand after concluding her handshake won't be returned. She took the vacant seat beside Horio. "By the way, there's another newbie."

"Where's Sakuno-chan?" An asked.

"Here…" The newcomer's eyes widened upon being eye to eye with a certain business tycoon.

|TBC|

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Reviews are appreciated. Constructive Criticisms are loved. Flames are ignored.

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